The House last week came down with an antispending virus, blown in on a strong wind from California. But indications are it will have no serious lasting effects, particularly to taxpayers pocketbooks.
When all is said and done, it appears it will amount to posturing more than any real pennypinching.
Proposition 13, the property tax initative passed in California, and its antigovernment spending message, set off the seizure.
All week long, the House voted to put 2 percent across-the-board spending cuts on appropriations bills funding the various government departments and agencies.
Labor, Health, Education and Welfare, State, Justice, Commerce, and a public works bill were all subjected to the 2 percent slash. Then, in a spasm of guilt, the House voted to cut its own legislative branch appropriations by 5 percent. So far, only the departments of Treasury and Transportation and a military construction bill have escaped the trim.
But before adding up any savings of the taxpayers' dollars, there are several indications that what is going on is being done more for the benefit of election year campaigning than for balancing the budget.
First, the Senate has not yet acted on its money bills, and Rep. David R. Obel (D-Wis.) believes that many House members are counting on the Senate, where six-year terms tend to insulate senators from the prevailing winds, to put back the money.
In fact, on the day after the House voted to cut $385 million from Labor-HEW, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee voted to restore it.
Second, the fact that the cuts are across-the-board, meaning no specific programs are singled out for cutting, makes the effort less credible.
Members are having it both ways, Obey says. They're going home telling the taxpayers they cut spending. But "they're covering their tails with all the interest groups" who would be screaming and lobbying if their programs were cut.
Third, when specific programs are put up for cuts, the cuts are voted down. When it was proposed to cut $30 million from the Legal Services Corp., the House voted 203 to 200 against it. When President Carter tried to get the House to knock out eight water projects from the public works bill, the House turned it down, even though Carter threatened a veto. An administration attempt to cut $233 million from Basic Education Opportunity Grants also lost.
The real test of sincerity, said Budget Committee Chairman Robert N. Giaimo (D-Conn.), will come when a defense appropriations bill of some $120 billion is on the floor.
The defense subcommittee on appropriations provided for a $2.5 billion aircraft carrier the administration doesn't want.
"We are talking about a lot of money, and if we really want to save the taxpayers' money . . . there will be a very substantial amount that we can save," Giaimo said.
But if the House is posturing, there is some indication that Carter is also. In a Tuesday press conference, he threatened to veto some three appropriations bills and 30 other bills he considered excessive. But as Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) pointed out, "the Appropriations Committee, "in its total actions, stayed within or below the president's request."
The president requested about $208.2 billion, and the House bills, as they came out of committee, added up to about $205.3 billion.
Of the three appropriations bills Carter threatened to veto, two, public works and agriculture, are below what the president wanted, and the third, Labor-HEW, went below the president's request after House passage. Rep. Robert Bauman (R-Md.) accused the president of a "cheap political trick" of trying to paint the Congress as a big spender when up to now his requests have not been sharply curtailed.
Though the Senate has not acted yet, there is some indication it will be tighter this year than usual. For instance, the Senate Labor-HEW bill is running $175 million below the House figure, and a staffer predicted more will be cut rather than added before the committee is finished.
If that's true, House members' hopes for Senate restoration may be dashed, and the cutting mood may turn out to be real after all.
Even though the House cuts may be symbolic as of now, the symbolism itself is important. The HEW bill was long a sacred cow of congressional Democrats, who even managed to override vetoes of it in the past.
As House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) points out, if members are willing to vote for even a symbolic cut on a "bread-and-butter Democratic bill that takes care of the middle class, the elderly and the poor," then it's a pretty good sign the House is becoming moderate at least in spending.
In fact there were signs of fear of taxpayer revolts in spending before Proposition 13, and it is not the only reason the House is cutting spending and cutting it in a more symbolic than real way.
The urge to roll back Social Security taxes overcame the House earlier this year, though it went away as quickly as it came. A similar urge to symbolic as of mow, the symbolism it-however, as the House voted for tuition tax credits for elementary and secondary school tuition as well as college costs.
"The House is in as much disarray as the country is," Obey said, citing letters from a county board in his district to increase revenue sharing and water and sewage grants, followed by another letter urging Congress to balance the budget.
A selfish mood and a lack of White House leadership or ability to pull the country together in a positive way, Obey believes, leaves power in the hands of negative coalitions, and anti-this and anti-that, and leaves Congress "running off in different directions with very few feeling any responsibility to the whole."
"Given the ability of this place to come unraveled at the drop of a dime, maybe we just sought to adjourn until after the election," Obey said.